American democracy has gained a new face — and most Americans don’t trust it

 

The United States of America, the USA, ‘The most free nation in the world’ (Bush 2001) or whatever you like to call it; America and American democracy were established on certain values. Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 reaffirmed these values in his book, Democracy in America. A flattering report of their political system, it’s still a reference point for American pride today. One passage reads: ‘In America, the people name the one who makes the law and the one who executes it; … So it is really the people who lead …’ This harrowing election however, has not only questioned some of these notions, but has wholeheartedly banished them.

The first thing to mend after this election for American democracy will be division. In terms of race, American democracy is in reverse. The 2016 election is set to be the most diverse in U.S. electoral history with nearly one in three voters expected to be Hispanic, black, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority. More dramatic though is the knowledge that the White voters will become the minority race between 2040 and 2050. American democracy is again divided on racial terms and Goldie Taylor says it reminds her of the Civil Rights era — shown by bottom-up pressure from equality groups like the Black Lives Matter movement (often battling with the socially conservative stance of the Republican Party). 

Polarization has been a consistent problem for America, shown by political paralysis in Congress. But this election is guilty of exaggerating that gap and bringing ideological divisions right to the surface. The successful campaign of Bernie Sanders was the first clue. He carries two traits that are traditionally threatening to a successful campaign: Sanders is a ‘democratic socialist’ and a civil rights activist. Even so, Sanders built a successful movement. His liberal values were popular, like tuition-free public universities and the legalization of Marijuana. Meanwhile, the Republican primaries were providing an opposite discourse. Ultimately, Trump stumbled upon the presidential candidacy with far-right immigration policies and his plans to deal with foreign threats like ISIS and China.

Out of Faith

Moving on from division, this election has delivered another gloomy conclusion for American democracy. That is the complete loss of faith amongst voter and politician. So much so, Morris Fiorina simply says: ‘The system is broken’. In 2013, journalist Fareed Zakaria termed it a ‘crisis of democracy’ and said that anger with politicians and elected officials was the highest it’s been since 1975.  He used research polls in support:

American National Election Studies reports that in 1964, 76 per cent of Americans agreed that, ‘You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time;. However, in 2012, this had fallen to just 22 per cent.

Dissatisfaction with political elites surrounds economic failures in recent years. The American economic dream of hard work delivering success is now a myth. Median male household income has not changed since the 70s and one in six men are not even looking for work anymore. Again, Sanders and Trump tapped into this dissatisfaction. Whilst the American middle classes felt squeezed, Sanders and Trump gave explanations and solutions. Whilst both blamed the corruptions of Washington, Sanders identified Wall Street for not paying their share of tax. Meanwhile, through trade agreements and stricter immigration policies, Trump promises to ‘Make America Great Again’. The mistrust of political elites has not been shown more clearly than through the stuttering campaign of Hillary Clinton. Her decades in elected office have only served to weaken her campaign, as experience in Washington is no longer desirable. The American people do not want that anymore and for the reason that American democracy has changed.

With under 48 hours before the final votes are counted, the future of American democracy has changed. Historically, there has never been an election like it. The norms are no longer normal and the quality of the campaign has become unrecognisable. For America, the result will not provide a clear future. It remains unclear as the election of either candidate serves to leave many questions unanswered. Will the result be accepted by the losing side? Will the elected leader have to forego many of their promised objectives to achieve any of their other ones? Yet, what is clear about the future is that American democracy is to be redirected. Traditional ways in which American politics is to be exercised have irreversibly changed.

 

Sources:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. James T. Schleifer, (USA: Vintage Press,1990), p.278.

Pew Research Center — http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/03/2016-electorate-will-be-the-most-diverse-in-u-s-history/.

Goldie Taylor, — The Daily Best, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/12/black-lives-matter-is-our-civil-rights-movement.html.

Fareed Zakaria — The Council on Foreign Affairs — https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2012-12-03/can-america-be-fixed.

American National Election Studies, University of Michigan — http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm.

Al Jazeera — http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2016/03/voters-rights-happening-american-democracy-160330130557702.html

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